The idea of the Ninth Symphony holds a special place in classical music lore. So much so that the storage capacity of the compact disc, at 74 minutes, was developed by Sony specifically to accommodate a particularly long reading of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The Ninth Symphony also has the ability to strike fear into the hearts of some composers going back as far as Beethoven’s day. The belief is that once you have written your ninth symphony, death would soon come calling. This phenomenon is known as the curse of the Ninth, and no one was more tragically afflicted with the fear of this curse than the Viennese composer Gustav Mahler.
When Mahler finished composing his massive Symphony No. 8, he didn’t proceed to his ninth as one might expect. Instead, he wrote the beautiful collection of orchestral songs called Das Lied von Der Erde, subtitled “A Symphony for Tenor and Alto (or Baritone) Voice and Orchestra.” It appeared Mahler had eluded the curse on a technicality, but ultimately he succumbed to the curse after completing his ninth and toiling away at a tenth symphony.
Another Austrian composer, Arnold Schoenberg, exhibited his own number related fear. Schoenberg showed classic triskaidekaphobia symptoms in his avoidance of using the number 13 in his scores and was uniquely positioned to comment on the strange curse that swirled around fin de siècle Vienna with such vengeance.
Commenting on the death of his friend and countryman, Mahler, Schoenberg explained: “It seems that the ninth is a limit. He who wants to go beyond it must pass away. It seems as if that something might be imparted to us in the tenth, which we ought not yet to know, for which we are not yet ready. Those who have written a ninth have stood too near to the hereafter. Perhaps the riddle of the world would be solved if one of those who knew them were to write the tenth, and that is probably not to take place."
Many composers since Mahler and Schoenberg have successfully composed through the ninth symphony obstacle and beyond with nary a concern. But it is true that even in recent times, the curse, or at least the fear of it, continues. The 75-year-old American composer Phillip Glass recently completed a ninth and tenth in quick succession presumably to dash any chance that the curse might deploy its mojo on the streets of New York City in 2012. Malcolm Arnold and Alexander Glazunov each worked on their ninth symphonies, then set down their symphony composing pens for the remainder of their careers which ran more than 20 years each. And the Russian composer, Alfred Schnittke barely managed to eke out a ninth, and final, symphony with his left hand due to paralysis following a stroke.
Perhaps there’s something to this curse. As you mull over the phenomenon of the dreaded curse of the ninth symphony, here’s some data to consider. Click the images to enlarge them.
Is there any validity to the curse of the ninth? Do you or anyone you know have music or performance related superstitions or rituals you care to share? Have your say in our comments section. We’d love to hear from you.
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on Feb 24, 2012